In my defense, it seemed like a good idea at the time. For almost a month, I decided to ignore my carefully curated and productive settings and turn on all the notifications—every single one—to see what happens.
It would be like the movie Yes Man where Jim Carrey agrees to everything that comes his way. Except instead of exciting opportunities, I’d only be receiving notifications. All the notifications.
If you’re reading this, chances are you’re reasonably concerned with your productivity. As such, you probably already disable many of the notifications from email, social media, Slack, or the multitude of other apps that want your attention.
Yet the majority of people don’t even consider changing these settings.
So just how bad are all these notifications for your productivity? I decided to find out.
Setting up the experiment
After discussing the idea with Jory (the RescueTime blog editor), we agreed on a few ground rules for our grand experiment:
- Timeline: One month. This would give me enough time to see the ongoing impact of notifications on my productivity.
- Settings: Turn on all push notifications for tools and apps both on mobile and desktop (for example, social media, email, Slack, and whatever else I use).
- Measurement: Track raw productivity using RescueTime (compare baseline to “notification hell” weeks) as well as keep a diary of how distracted and productive I felt. This way we get both a quantitative (data) and qualitative (diary) way to measure the impact of notifications.
The hypothesis was simple: fewer notifications equals fewer distractions and more focus. What I learned about how notifications impact our day, however, went much deeper.
The madness begins: Week 1 and the realization of just how many notifications apps send
With a shot of whiskey and no small amount of nerves, I enabled all notifications. And then . . . crickets. Turns out I left “Do Not Disturb” mode on. (Old habits die hard). With my devices now “optimized” properly for notifications, I settled down to work.
As the day went on, I certainly noticed more notifications but didn’t feel overwhelmed. In fact, one of the categories I suspected would be the noisiest turned out to be the quietest.
I received relatively few notifications from social media. However, this is most likely due to my own social media habits. I’m not particularly active, so there wasn’t actually a lot for the apps to notify me about.
Still, I was surprised I didn’t receive more notifications of popular posts or other ways to get me to engage with these apps. No complaints from me.
I finished the day thinking that maybe this won’t be so bad after all. But that soon changed. Pretty quickly, the apps descended on me and filled my day.
Here’s my diary entry from the first week:
“Day three and I’m seeing notifications I have no idea existed. What the heck are Spotify Connections? And why can’t I just swipe that notification away?”
“I feel like the notifications have reached a point where ‘fighting’ them is just too much work. I can be pretty easily distracted, but regularly checking the notifications makes taking a break a much easier option.”
Within a few days, the notifications were already driving me crazy, but not in the way I’d anticipated.
Why does one email = six different notifications?
I’d imagined a constant barrage of notifications. Instead, it was more like a geyser: quiet for a while, before suddenly exploding with activity.
Most apps aren’t content to notify you just once. Instead, if you don’t change your default settings, they take that to mean you’re giving them full access to your attention.
Here’s just one example.
With the default notifications on, a single email would result in:
- An icon on my browser tab,
- An actual pop-up on my desktop
- A merry jingle
- A buzz from my phone
- Banner notifications
- A green notification light (that would stay lit even if the screen was off)
For other apps, it was even worse.
Many would double up their notifications sending both a native one and an email. For example, if someone messaged me on LinkedIn, that would trigger a notification in the app, plus an email to let me know.
Others would notify me of the same event, such as the trio of buzzes from my Google Calendar, phone’s default calendar, and to-do list app.
My “favorite,” however, was my invoicing app. Sending an invoice to a client triggered both email and app notifications for:
- Sent receipts
- Read receipts
- Payments made
I usually do all my invoicing in one go, so on those days my phone and desktop would just not. stop. going off.
The “Snowball Effect” of distraction
As I started to get used to my new notification-enabled life, my productivity diary turned from fascination to desperation. I noticed myself falling victim to what I came to unaffectionately call the “Snowball effect.”
While a notification in itself may have been small, many would trigger a chain reaction that could quickly suck up half the day.
The biggest offender by far was chat notifications. Any message notification triggered an almost uncontrollable need to respond instantly.
But that went both ways. The person I was messaging would quickly respond, and a couple of “quick questions” would result in long conversations with different people, all while I’m meant to be working.
This became much worse when the chat came through a social media app. A direct message on LinkedIn or Facebook inevitably sent me scrolling through my feed.
Week 3: Workplace notifications start to break down my work-life balance
With all notifications on, there’s no clocking out. And this can have a strong negative effect on our relationships.
It’s difficult to ignore a buzzing phone in your pocket, even if you’re out enjoying a meal. I lost track of the number of times I checked my phone while spending time with friends and family.
But why do notifications have such a powerful effect? How do they encourage us to act in ways that we know aren’t in our best interests?
The problem is, you never know what notification or buzz of your phone means. It could be a message from a friend or a work email. It turns out that level of mystery causes us to become psychologically dependent on our devices.
Notifications can trigger a release of dopamine—the brain’s “reward chemical.” Simply put, dopamine helps reinforce behaviors (both good and bad). While, theoretically, a notification from your phone should reward social behavior, such as communicating with friends, many times we’re left feeling stressed, sad, and dissatisfied.
The final results: How turning all my notifications on killed my productivity
After three weeks with all notifications on, I had mixed feelings. I didn’t feel like they had taken over my life, but something wasn’t right.
I felt like I was able to get back to my tasks quickly after checking a notification most of the time, but the sheer number of times I ended up checking my phone was a nuisance. By the end of the three weeks, I was glad to turn all the notifications off again. However, it turned out getting back to my normal levels of productivity wasn’t as simple as flicking a switch.
Rebuilding my productivity after “notification-pocalypse”
Turning off all the notifications felt like a weight had been lifted. With the exception of WhatsApp (how my family contacts me), everything was now off. Bliss!
However, within minutes, I realized I was still getting Gmail notifications. It turned out I couldn’t disable Google notifications through the notifications menu on my phone. I had to go into the specific app’s menu, then disable notifications from there.
Without email notifications, I’d have to go and manually check my inbox. From previous experience, I knew that I could spend all day in my inbox, so decided I’d check my inbox just three times a day:
- First thing before starting work
- During my lunch break
- Before clocking off for the day
The WhatsApp notifications were still a problem, but surely it had to be better than all notifications on, right?
It didn’t take long to realize I still had a problem.
After my first week without notifications, my RescueTime productivity pulse was up to 39— slightly higher than the previous week but still lower than the first couple of weeks of the experiment. Here’s my diary:
“It’s day 3 with no notifications. I’m still relieved to be without the phone constantly lighting up, but I’m still picking up the phone to check for non-existent notifications. Like it’s some force of habit.”
“It’s particularly worse when I’m tired or putting off a task I don’t want to do, at which point checking emails 3x a day turns into checking emails 3x a minute.”
I was compulsively checking my phone even without notifications enabled.
While I thought it would take much longer, I later found out that bad habits can form in as few as 18 days.
Notifications encouraged new bad habits. And I needed to go a step further than just turning them off. I had to break the bad habit and replace my phone checking with more productive work.
Breaking my bad distraction habit
Fortunately, Jory came to the rescue with details on FocusTime triggers and Alerts I could use within RescueTime.
FocusTime automatically blocks distracting websites and can even put your Android phone or Slack account in do-not-disturb mode when you need to focus.
I used FocusTime to rebuild my good habits in a number of ways, such as:
- Blocking distracting websites for the first half-hour of the workday to build a better morning routine
- Alerting me if I spent too long in emails, so I can spend more time on meaningful work
- Reminding me to get back on track after lunch, avoiding the dreaded afternoon slump
Just these three alerts were enough to keep me focused.
Notifications don’t just disrupt you, they destroy your ability to focus long-term
Having all your notifications enabled can have a huge impact on your productivity, even after you disable them again.
Even though most people reading this are unlikely to have all their notifications on, it’s important to understand that even just a few can impact both our work productivity and personal relationships.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by notifications, the good news is you don’t have to stay that way. By replacing those distracting habits with positive ones, you can increase your productivity and reclaim your sanity.